Friday 16 November 2018

Gertie spent her life fighting for justice

Balbriggan public representative and fierce campaigner against drink driving, Gertie Shields will be sadly missed after passing away last week

Gertie Shields was laid to rest on Monday
Gertie Shields was laid to rest on Monday

John Manning

Balbriggan has said a fond farewell to something of a local legend this week in former town councillor and fearless campaigner against drink driving, Gertie Shields, who passed away last Friday.

Gertie was weaved into the fabric of her community and represented the people of Balbriggan with vigour and commitment for 15 years as a town commissioner first and then a town councillor.

She was first elected to the local institution in 1994 and stepped down in 2009 when she was awarded the freedom of the town hall by the then town manager, Peter Caulfield.

On the occasion of her retirement from local politics, six years ago, Gertie told the Fingal Independent: 'I thought rearing nine children I'd have no time for politics, but I eventually got there.'

But she did more than get there, and left her mark on the town she loved as well as making an national impact as the founder of Mothers Against Drink Driving, following the tragic death of her daughter, Paula in 1983 in a road traffic collision,

The Mayor of Fingal, Cllr David O'Connor was a friend of Gertie Shields and regarded her as a political 'mentor and guiding light'.

Mayor O'Connor said it was with 'extreme regret and shock' that he heard the news of Gertie's passing.

He told the Fingal Independent: 'She was a friend, a mentor and a guiding light for so many people in politics in our area and all over the country.'

The Mayor of Fingal said that Gertie was 'never afraid to speak her mind' and that her work with Mothers Against Drink Driving was 'nationally significant but just as important to her, were the problems of individual people in her beloved Balbriggan and surrounding areas.'

Mayor O'Connor said that Gertie would be 'sadly missed by all who knew her'.

In 2013, Gertie was honoured for her campaigning work against drink driving and her contribution to making the practice as socially unacceptable as it is today.

The Road Safety Association recognised her work as the founder of Mothers Against Drink Driving at their 'Leading Lights in Road Safety' awards, held in Farmleigh in 2013.

Gertie was presented with the 'Supreme Award' that year and was delighted to receive it. Speaking to the Fingal Independent at the time, she said: 'I have now retired from the campaign but I am hoping someone else will take over and head it up,' said Gertie.

'The campaign needs to keep going and I have no problem handing it over to someone else but it's a campaign that should be kept activated.'

With road deaths down from 400 in 1983, when Gertie lost her daughter Paula, to 177 in the year she received the award, she said she believed there had been a change in attitude among road users in her time campaigning on the issue.

Gertie said: 'I also think young people's attitudes have changed too. They seem to be much more careful drivers and with their insurance premiums being so high, this may be a reason.

'Also there is more awareness about road safety out there now so people's mindsets have changed. It's now very few drivers who would even consider getting behind a wheel with drink on them.'

Her campaign, 'Mothers Against Drink Driving' began on the day the motorist who was charged with Paula's death was sentenced in court.

Gertie said: 'He got a two-year suspended sentence for dangerous driving causing death and admitted to having drank at least ten pints before driving and he got a 15-year driving ban.

'We were all in court that day and the case before his was about a man who stole a sheep and received a six months sentence.'

'This galvanised me into action,' said Gertie. 'The judge invited me into the witness box to tell how we have been affected by Paula's death and from that day on I was determined to do something about drink drivers.'

Gay Byrne, then chairman of the RSA, who presented Gertie with her award in 2013, said 'Gertie has given over so much of her life to making Irish roads a safer place. Her work has contributed to the sea change in attitude towards drink driving in Ireland, as well as changes in the legislation on blood alcohol levels and dangerous driving.

'For the past two decades, driven by the personal tragedy of the loss of her 19-year-old daughter Paula, Gertie has unrelentingly campaigned to rid this country of the scourge of drunk driving.'

'To look back now on her ideas and recommendations in the early years of Mothers Against Drink Driving is to see many of the measures that have, at last, been introduced in recent years.'

He added: 'Gertie first came to my attention when she made an appearance on the Late Late Show in the 80s, and since then has become one of the most recognised and admired campaigning names against drink driving as she took her message to the airwaves and print media across the country and across generations.'

When Gertie decided to step down from local politics, she explained her love of the political scene to the Fingal Independent and how she was raised to it, quite literally at her mother's knee.

She said: 'I was always inclined to the political scene. We had politics at the kitchen table and we were fed on the business of the de Valera and Michael Collins era.

'My mother entered politics when she was 70 and she was the first woman elected to Drogheda Corporation. My brother got her seat when she retired and was Mayor of Drogheda several times.

'I was always outspoken and had the gift of the gab. I felt I had something to contribute. I'm delighted I went into politics and I've enjoyed my time.'

Gertie passed away peacefully at the Mater Hospital surrounded by her family. She was the wife of the late Gerry Shields and mother to the late Paul and Deirdre. She will be sadly missed by her loving children, Geraldine, David, Mary, Derek, Aideen, Evelyn and Vincent as well as her brother, Raymond, her daughters-in-law, sons-in-law, sisters-in-law, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, relatives and friends.

On Monday morning she was laid to rest in her beloved Balbriggan as the town fell silent in her honour.

The community of Balbriggan turned out in great numbers to say goodbye to Gertie at her funeral mass on Monday morning in the heart of the community she had served with such commitment for so many years. Gertie will be remembered as a committed public representative and a fierce campaigner and her work, particularly in the area of drink driving will leave a lasting legacy and helped save countless lives on our roads.

Fingal Independent